Loving Hermann Hesse

My birthday earlier in the week brought back memories of another birthday, one spent in far less auspicious circumstances. In fact, it could qualify as one of the worst birthdays I’ve ever had. It was my 20th and I spent it on a coach driving down through France for a skiing holiday. For reasons unknown we had some sort of compere up front with a microphone. Bleary and uncomfortable from hours of sleepless travel, I heard my name being called and knew no good would come of it. My attempts to pass incognito did not work, and I was hauled to my feet so that a coachload of indifferent strangers (for the most part) could sing Happy Birthday to me. I daresay there are people who would love the communal cheer of this sort of thing. I was not one of them.

We arrived at our resort, which was like all resorts the world over: not as nice as the photos in the brochure, with that slightly used and tired look of places that see vast quantities of human traffic. I can’t say that I had high hopes for my ability on skis, but I was young and naïve and the man who was to become Mr Litlove had persuaded me that I should try new things. I did not last very long on the slopes. The nursery slopes this late in the season were all ice and slush. The experience of careering down even a gentle incline whilst completely out of control of myself was not my idea of fun, and the tiny tots zipping past with insouciance were somewhat galling. I had been told that the après ski was wonderful, and some people seemed to find it so. We were with a whole lot of other students from UK universities and the resort echoed to the sounds of their drunkenness every night. It was best to visit the loos early in the evening and then hang on until the cleaners had passed through first thing in the morning. ‘You couldn’t have a better holiday than this,’ one of my friends enthused. ‘Exercise out in the fresh air every day. What could be better?’

Well, in all honesty, lying on my bottom bunk bed with a book seemed a vast improvement on the alternative. I was not in the best of moods. I had a sore backside, an overdraft for the first time due to the exhorbitant cost of skiing, and an inferiority complex. I simply could not find pleasure in the things that other people told me were pleasurable. I was not an outdoors, sporty type who liked to fling herself about mountain sides, and most of all I was annoyed with myself because I knew this. And I had allowed myself to be talked into doing something that had not even appealled as an idea because of some ludicrous belief that I could surprise myself. Even at twenty, I knew that lack of self-awareness was not my problem;  it was living with my true nature that was going to be the challenge.

The enormous comfort of that trip was my copy of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, which I was reading for the third time. You have to understand that reading a book in German for the third time was a sign of true love. The German language is an extraordinary beast. In its wisdom, it has decreed that after the first verb, which may come in an appropriate place nice and early in the sentence, every other verb has to queue up at the sentence’s end in a tight little logjam. So you have to hang on mentally to every other part of the sentence until you come to those verbs and then reassign them to their appropriate places. Extra fun may be had by complex tenses, especially those including modal verbs and subjunctive voices, ie ‘what should have happened’ or ‘if he had been able’. This must account in some way for the efficiency and acumen of the German people. But for my poor bedazzled brain, it meant that reading slowed down to a crawl. I could read 60 pages an hour in English, 40 in French, and a mere 20 in German. But when it came to Hermann Hesse’s beautiful, flowing German, I scarcely noticed. I just didn’t want it to stop.

Hesse, like Rilke, is one of those writers who seems to write about the things I am properly interested in. He writes about how to live, when you do not feel like you fit with the ‘normal’ run of humanity, when you are miserable in ways others say you should not be, or when you simply want to live a good life and do not know how that can be achieved. His characters are always searching for a cure for living, and the answers they come up with – art, love, transcendent wisdom, acceptance with humour – feel like they might just work. I didn’t realise when I was reading the book at 20 how interested in psychoanalysis Hesse was, although it was already starting to enthrall me as a body of theory. Nor did I know anything about his life, and his extreme sensitivity – ‘like an egg without a shell’ one of his teachers described him, and that’s certainly a simile I could use for myself, at times. Only years later did I read a biography and feel a strong identification with him as a person.

In Steppenwolf, the main protagonist, Harry Haller, is so fed up with his life that he’s decided to commit suicide on his upcoming fiftieth birthday. But then he befriends a young woman, Hermine, his female alter ego, and gets to know the louche company she keeps. She teaches him to dance (not throw himself down a ski slope, note), and then invites him to the mysterious magic theatre for a masked ball. The hippie generation adored Hermann Hesse for inventing the magic theatre, which could read as a hallucinogenic trip. I saw it just as a place of fantastic imagination, a magical exploration of the parts of the mind that we normally visit only in dreams. I expect that the novel feels dated now, but reading in a foreign language (for me, at least) always took that sort of dimension off the language. I read it in a very pure way. It remains in my memory as a very pure book; one in which a man finds reasons not just to keep living, but to believe there can be goodness and magic and hope in life. It contained also a message that it would take me another twenty years to understand: that when there are parts of yourself you do not like, or feel ashamed of, the most helpful reaction is to accept them just as they are, to work with them, rather than hide them away. But at least after that unsatisfying trip, I did have enough sense never to go skiing again.

35 thoughts on “Loving Hermann Hesse

  1. Liking this post because I have some thoughts, but not the time to leave a proper comment. Hopefully you’ll get something with heft to it when I get back home.

  2. I haven’t read any Hesse and haven’t a hope of reading him in the original German, but I want to know more about this man who knows that we have to learn to live with who we are and not who we wish we were. Is he worth reading in translation and if so can you recommend a good one?

    • I would definitely start with Siddhartha – oh unless you really don’t like books that have anything to do with Buddhism. But that’s a beautiful book, and the translation of it has always read very seamlessly to me. Or, actually, thinking about you and our shared interests in educating young people, you might consider trying Demian. That’s a very typical Hesse novel and a most intriguing one. I would love to know what you think of him!

  3. Poor you, what a miserable birthday that must have been. Apparently you forgave Mr. Litlove for convincing you to go though. I am working on relearning German after, well we won’t say how long it’s been but long enough to feel like I am starting over, and it’s not so much the verbs that give me trouble but all those articles and how they change in the different tenses. It’s maddening!

    • Heh, I remember it well! My teacher taught us all the declensions by repeating it like a rhythmic sort of song. It goes: der die das die, den die das die, des der des der, den der den dem. If you say it over and over it’s hypnotic and you never forget it – as you can see! It’s been a good 20 years since I last spoke German. It is a maddening language though, because the grammar is so complicated. I’d say bon courage, but that’s the wrong language. 🙂

  4. As someone who occasionally translates from German, I still am a slow reader in that language and the buildup of verbs at the end of sentences is something I still don’t quite get used to. When I am in Germany, they sometimes joke to each other that you can’t interrupt someone while they’re speaking because then you don’t know what they’re saying, but in English, I think our conversations are constant interruptions.
    I know what you mean about that feeling of finding a text in German where you just breeze forward. I am reading a book now that feels that way.

    • Ooh I like what you say about interruptions. That’s very intriguing. I didn’t know you did translations! I always think that must be a lovely way to earn a living (though I couldn’t do it myself – not accurate enough). But oh the bliss of an easy-read German text. Well, I love that feeling of travelling over satin in any language.

  5. I’m jealous you can read Hesse in his native language 🙂 I must revisit his work – long overdue….

    • Some of my so-called ‘friends’ travelling with me had leaked it out. Grrr. Thank you for the solidarity. I am so glad that has only happened to me once in my life (never setting foot in a coach again has certainly helped!) 🙂

  6. I’ve never read Hesse so cannot relate at all to the second half of your post, but I did go skiing, for the first and last time, when I was about 20, and my experience was remarkably similar to the one you describe. It would seem you and I are bookish, introverted birds of a feather in that regard. Let us stand proud! 🙂

  7. The wonderful thing about being of mature years is that you don’t feel compelled to do things just because everyone else is doing them. I read Steppenwolf once but couldn’t make much sense of it at the time – but it’s one that my colleagues in Germany tell me I really should give another go.

  8. I love how you mix real life in with the books you read. It’s never just a review, it’s a shared, life experience. Skiing is for whimps, tackling books in German is a heroes’ game 😉

  9. this line brought back Many memories of holidays where other people got sporty and we hid away with a paperback….

    “lying on my bottom bunk bed with a book”



    thank goodness for being 45 (too!)

    • Oh I do feel like I am in the very best company! If people really, really want me to, I’ll cheer them on. But ideally from behind a window in a heated room. 😉 Your book is winging its way to me, btw – can’t wait to read it! 🙂

    • I like your attitude. Why excuse ourselves for broadening our minds and strengthening our compassion? And having a jolly nice time to boot. I found Hesse definitely stood up to a reread, so urge you to pick him up.

  10. I really loved this post – especially the description of how difficult the German was but how worth the effort, and also that of skiing.

    If it’s any consolation, LD#2 and I listened to Ayres on the Air on iPlayer (she has chosen Pam Ayres for her Year 8 poet project) and there was a very funny routine about skiing that had us both giggling.  So you are in good company!


    • I will have to try and track that down! Pam Ayres can be very, very funny. What a great choice for a school project! And thank you for your kind words. It was fun to revisit the old days and feel how very far away they are now! 🙂

  11. I have often wanted to read Steppenwolf but didn’t think much about it. You’ve made it sound so appealing that now I’ve put it high up on my wishlist. I read somewhere that Hesse felt it was misunderstood. Have you any idea why?

    • Gosh, I did know when I was reading up on Hesse a few months back. When you read the novel, and the ending in particular, you’ll see how tricky it is to see exactly what Hesse is saying. The opportunities for misunderstanding are rife! Do also consider Siddhartha. It’s my definite favourite for a first encounter with Hesse’s writing.

  12. It’s nice you learned early on what you enjoy and don’t. Reading is such a comfort and joy and a legitimate pass time just like skiing. It’s much nice to be by a nice fire reading than freezing out in the weather.

    • I didn’t get comfortable with my own likes and dislikes until I’d hit 40 though, which strikes me now as time wasted – but looking back, it was also inevitable. You can only do what you can do! Thank you for your lovely comment about reading. Isn’t it nice to be in by the fire! I couldn’t agree more.

  13. Loved this post. I read Hesse — Steppenwolf, Demian and Narziss and Goldmund, in English, at around the same age as you. I loved his writing dearly. I still remember — 30+ years later — some of the lines in it.

    You’ve inspired many of us to return to him. Thanks!

    • Oh and you remind me that I have Narziss and Goldmund still to read. I must dig that one out! How nice that you are a Hesse fan, too. I probably shouldn’t say so, but I do feel that liking his books is a mark of a subtle and truth-seeking mind.

  14. The effect of Hesse on you on that holiday touches me. There must be so many of us, readers at least, who know so well the comforting, healing powers of a wonderful book when other things are not going so well.

    • Oh Angela, what would we do without them? I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have been deeply abjectly grateful for the presence of books in my life, as distraction, yes, but also as insight and wisdom. Both soothe in different and necessary ways.

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